Rousseau on opera

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to share various quotes that would trace the broad historical outlines of what might be called an anti-opera bias, and I provided a famous excerpt from the 17th-century French critic Charles de Saint-Évremond. Today, I’m moving forward about 100 years to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who uses one of the characters in his 1762 novel Julie, Or, The New Heloise to describe the current dismal state of French opera:

“I will not tell you about this Music, you know about it. But you could have no idea of the awful whines, the long howls with which the theater reverberates during the performances. The Actresses are seen almost in convulsions, violently forcing these yelpings from their lungs, their fists clutched against their breasts, head thrown back, face inflamed, veins bulging, stomach throbbing; one cannot say whether it is the eye or the ear that is the more diagreeably affected; their efforts cause as much suffering to those who are watching them as their singing does to those who are listening, and even more inconceivable is the fact that these howlings are almost the only thing the audience applauds.”

In addition to his career as a writer and philosopher, Rousseau was also a highly successful opera composer, and so this really shouldn’t be taken as a blanket condemnation of the art form. Rather, his main gripe was with opera as it was produced and performed in Paris, and, more specifically, with the type of opera associated with Jean-Philippe Rameau. A bit later on, Rousseau’s narrator, who is communicating these sentiments in a very long letter, delivers what must have been at the time the real critical coup de grâce:

I maintain that for any man who is not devoid of taste for the fine arts, French music, dance, and the supernatural mixed together will make the Paris Opera the most boring spectacle in all existence.

Boredom was (and still is) a common criticism of opera, and it’s hard to know how to respond to the charge when it’s presented this way. Rousseau even manages to tap into another of the main complaints voiced about opera, namely its absurd and even ridiculous nature.

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